Best Music of 2003 | Mark Anthony Neal

[2 January 2004]

By Mark Anthony Neal

Booty Hops, Bionic Rappers and New Music from Planet Soul

Brotha from the Lost Planet of Soul

Anthony Hamilton, Comin’ From Where I’m From (Arista)
Something like Bill Withers singing “Harlem”, Bobby “Blue” (who ain’t never been bland) talking about “...No Love in the Heart of the City” and that cat from JA, Beres Hammond, singing “No Disturb Sign” and you get exactly where Anthony Hamilton comin’ from. On the real, a Carolina cat, but he could have been from the Lost Planet of Soul. The lead single “Comin’ from Where I From” is straight from the book of Crossroad Demons, where you know Eshu is workin’ that thing, but you still got to take a bite. “Charlene” and “I’m a Mess” (“I’m shaking and I’m ‘scured’”) is just the thangs you sang about the loses on the come up. But it’s that moment when Hamilton breaks out ol’ Kenny Rogers (“Lucille”), that you realize that despite the praises, this cat ain’t never gonna leave Tobacco Road.

Grown Folk Music

Kindred the Family Soul, Surrender to Love (Hidden Beach)
Did he really say “tired of… not getting no ass / Unless the baby’s sleep / But even them seems like we tryin’ to creep”? (“Far Away”) Damn, must have been in my head and when you get pop or R&B that even remotely represents the daily, daily of the “not nearly rich, never gonna be famous, but still happy to put in the time” it needs to be recognized. Kindred, a husband and wife duo from South Jersey got the deal right, giving grown folks, in between day care pickups, out-of-town business trips, soccer camp, another McFood dinner and yes another night (or month) of not getting “some,” music to “respirate” to (you know, “breathe in, breathe out”). Folks might be steppin’ hard to that Chi-town Piper, but seems like South Jersey/Philly got their own little stepper-classic with “Far Away” and life don’t get no sweeter than hearing Aja coo to Fatin, “we’ve come so far / Stars look up to you/my heart belongs / Right here next to you” as she does on the lovely “Stars”.

It’s That Feelin’ Music, ya Know?

Freeway, Philadelphia Freedom (Def Jam)
Folks been wonderin’ when that second-tier at Rocafella was gonna step up, and while folks waited for Beans and Bleek to finally step to the next level, it’s Beans’ boy Freeway that drops the serious head-nodder. Possessing a high-pitch wheeze in which he always sounds like he’s on the verge of some serious distress (like asthma attack, for real), there’s no doubt that Just Blaze and Kanye “MFin’” West gave Freeway the joints to get him in your head. Jay actually sounds interested on the trio track with Freeway and Beans (“What We Do”) and Faith is as lovely as ever on “Don’t Cross the Line”. But it’s Anthony Allen’s (y’all remember Roc’s Christion?) collabo on the ghetto anthem “Alright” that’s the deal here. From Freeway’s spoken intro (“this that feeling music, you know / We make that music you can FEEL… EARLY!”) ‘til Allen starts to church it at the end, “Alright” is yet another reminder that even thug-niggas need to get their spirit on from time to time.

Adventures of the Bionic Rapper

50 Cent, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (Interscope)
I ain’t gonna lie, from the first time I heard “Wanksta” and then heard all the hype about Mr. Fiddy, I thought he was the hip-hop anti-Christ. Cats couldn’t be MCs no more, now they either had to be droppin’ joints from the grave or rappin’ about the nine bullets that shoulda put them in a grave. Seemed like a marketing scheme to me, since you can’t be any more authentic in hip-hop then to be dead. The video for “In Da Club” essentially admitted that the cat was constructed like the Bionic Rapper (what, y’all didn’t watch The Six Million Dollar Man?). I laid low on the 50-phenomenon for awhile, even as my girl Lynne D. Johnson put some shit out there to turn a brotha’s head. But it was “21 Questions”—the best hip-hop love song since LL’s “I Need Love”—that got me in the mix and that video with Meagan Goode (bruhs could finally admit what they thought about her, since they couldn’t when she first appeared in the film Eve’s Bayou). By the time I heard “Many Men (Wish Death)” I was convinced that Fiddy might become the Robert Johnson of his generation.

Meshell, My Belle

Me’Shell NdegeOcello, Comfort Woman (Maverick)
Comfort Woman was written while sis was comin’ to terms with a New York City that was still metaphorically and spiritually aflame in the aftermath of real terror attacks and the flossin’ of real terrorist from podiums in the Nation’s Capitol. In so many ways reminiscent of Bob’s Kaya (“excuse while I light my spliff…”) Comfort Woman is alternately thoughtful, funny, sexy, regretful, passionate, sad, angry, accusatory, and hopeful, or the very emotions that Me’Shell NdegeOcello has always brought to our palates—if we bothered to taste. Fact of the matter is that Me’Shell’s music has always been a response to terror and that is perhaps why she’ll never be a pop star.

“Make You Get Like Beyonce and Do the Booty-Hop”

Beyonce, Dangerously in Love (Sony)
The first minute and a half of “Crazy in Love” took my breath away and I guess that was the point, but damn if “Crazy” wasn’t as close to perfect as pop got this year. Never got tired of that Chi-lites hook (“Are You My Woman”), but proving that it wasn’t all about old-school soul, Ms. B’s own little “oh, oh, oh, oh…” riff gave it generation-transcending appeal (six months later the five-year-old still shaking her ass to it). It was a no brainer that “Baby Boy” with the rent-a-dancehall artists of the moment was gonna keep Ms. B on the charts throughout the year, but so much of Dangerously in Love‘s appeal had little to do with “Destiny’s Child: the Solo Years” and everything to do with baby-girl singing about getting grown and in love, like on songs like the remake of Funkadelic’s “I’d Rather Be with You” (“Be With You”), “Me, Myself and I”, and the orgasmicly brilliant “Speechless”. “Hip-Hop Star”, with Big Boi and Sleepy Brown (“Got to Give it Up”-era Marvin Gaye channeled) gave us a glimpse into the year that would be OutKast. Ms. B’s remake of “The Closer I Get to You” with Luther rings a tad bit sentimental, but I’m a sentimentalist, so for me, Beyonce was no better than when singing to daddy Knowles on the hidden track “My Daddy”.

“Whatever It Is, It’s Got to Be Funky…”

Joss Stone, The Soul Sessions (S-Curve)
You hear the names Betty Wright and Latimore in the mix, and you got to wonder if the folks at Malaco were planning a reunion disc. And true indeed the spirit of Muscle Shoals was up in the house, but instead it was a 16-year-old white Brit named Joss Stone was bringing the funk. No doubt her age was more astounding than her whiteness (like the first time you heard a 16-year-old Johnny Gill bring the bass), but being real it was that whiteness that got her coverage in The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly. Ain’t gonna be no Kenny G or Michael Bolton debates up in here, ‘cause sis got a game (game recognize game) or Sister Betty wouldn’t have been in the mix in the first place. Stone’s version of Carla Thomas’s “I’ve Fallen in Love with You” got a life waitin’ for it at the Stepper Set and “The Chokin’ Kind” will choke the tears out of you. But damn if JS’s take on the Isley’s “For the Love of You” isn’t both one of the “most beautifullest” things you’ll hear this year and one of the most inventive soul remakes this side of classic (circa 1984) Luther Vandross.

Brooklyn’s Finest

Jay-Z, The Black Album (Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam)
We know why Jay was in the game—he was always in it for the “cash, hoes, and cars”, but that never meant that he wasn’t also doin’ it for the “Love of the Mic”. And ain’t nobody ever rocked the Runway and the Boulevard the way Jay has (‘cept maybe Snoop) and for as long. He was never as serious as Nas (his only legitimate living East Coast contender) or as lovable as Biggie, but his wit, inventiveness, brashness and sense of humor (which Nas has never had) counts for something. Nas may get into burning Jay in effigy, but he need to own up to the fact that Jay got him back on the grind, finally realizing the promise we all thought we heard on Illmatic. The Black Album may or not be Hova’s Sly Stone move, but he’s no doubt doin’ it on his terms. Better than Reasonable Doubt and just a tad off of the brilliance of The Blueprint (his best, imho), The Black Album finds Jay perhaps assuaging his hurt feelings, making the case any way, as to why he’s “Brooklyn’s Finest”. As hip-hop gets dirty in the South and searches the globe for the next distorted “third world” riff, being the “King of Brooklyn” might be everything.

Goapele, Even Closer (SkyBlaze)
Sexy, passionate and committed—words that could describe any number of R&B divas, particularly if their passions and commitments are limited to the promotion of themselves. But Goapele is not one of those divas. Sexy, for damn sure the Bay Area resident is, but her passions and commitments extend into the world of social activism, anti-war protest, and less-than-fashionable womanisms, making her R&B’s version of a 21st First Century Angela Davis or rather Elaine Brown, first sister of the Black Panther Party, who when not trying to give her male colleagues a little gender consciousness, managed to record three albums in the early 1970s. Independently released on Goapele’s own SkyBlaze Recordings, Even Closer was more than a pleasant surprise, it was an exhaled breath, amongst an array of “Milkshakes”, Beyonce “booty hops”, and Murder Inc. Princesses.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/best2003-best2003-neal/